Why Toronto’s oldest cemetery is spending $2.5M to move the cremated remains of 500 people

What could be the largest disinterment of human remains in Ontario’s history is taking place at St. James Cemetery in Toronto in a bid to save hundreds of graves from erosion.

The cremated remains of 500 people —  buried between the 1960s and 2010 — have been removed from their resting places and put in storage  — in what St. James’ Cemetery volunteer Don Solomon calls a “respectful” manner.

Solomon says contractors who specialize in this sort of work are carrying out the grim task, which is necessary because the remains are in danger of sliding into the Don Valley. 

“They work methodically; they handle remains one by one. They didn’t use heavy equipment around the remains. They didn’t step on remains — they handled them with care,” Solomon said

.”You were clearly working with people who understood the gravity. I was impressed.”

Workers clear trees as part of a slope stabilization project at St. James Cemetery in Toronto on Nov. 29, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The remains will be re-interred by the late spring, according to Solomon. The entire operation is costing about $2.5 million, none of it public money, he said.

The cemetery, owned by St. James Cathedral on Church Street, opened in 1844 and is the oldest in Toronto that’s still in use. The reason for the mass move is that the ground the graves occupy is eroding away, according to a notice on the cemetery’s website.

The cemetery began using a 200-metre wide swath of reclaimed land on a northeast-facing hilltop overlooking Rosedale Valley Road back in the 1960s, Solomon said. But that hilltop has been slowly wearing down over the years and cemetery executives decided to shore it up.

“These graves are approximately two feet by two feet square; they’re not full casket remains,” Solomon said. “And consequently, we’re not talking about an enormous area when we’re talking about 500 graves.”

David Brazeau, of the Bereavement Authority of Ontario, says while graves have to be moved from time to time, his organization believes this is the largest single disinterment operation in the province’s history. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

There was concern the erosion would lead to the exposure of the remains.

Solomon said most relatives of the deceased affected by the move have been notified, as is required by the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO), the agency that regulates funeral homes and cemeteries.

Finding some of those families wasn’t always possible, according to the BAO’s David Brazeau.

“A lot of the descendants of the people whose remains are being moved are actually buried here themselves, and others have simply moved away,” he said.

These gravestones will be replaced once the remains have been re-interred in the spring. Each grave is marked with a red flag and its GPS location noted to ensure remains are returned to their proper positions. (Mike Smee/CBC)

He said while it’s not uncommon for cemeteries to have to move human remains occasionally, this is the largest mass move that the authority has heard of in Ontario’s history.

“People have always wanted to have a place that’s nice to visit, a place they would actually want to be at themselves, so they choose something picturesque,” Brazeau said. “(It) could be overlooking a valley, it could be overlooking the Don River,” he added.

“Issues that are very common are the one we’re seeing here — erosion. If you’re on a hillside, over time, that’s going to need some shoring up.”

A contractor is removing some trees and working to shore up the ridge where the graves have been disinterred, according to Solomon. Each grave has been marked with a small red flag, and its GPS co-ordinates recorded, so the remains can be returned to their original resting spots.

The slope rehabilitation work should be completed by spring, and “you can expect to see the remains reinterred in May, [with] everything done by sometime in June, with a ceremony in the late spring, maybe June,” Solomon said.

“We want the rights holders or the families of the people whose remains have been moved here, to know what we’re doing, and that we’re doing this to make sure that the graves are preserved in perpetuity.”

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